February 19, 2013
In the culinary world, it’s clear that the last decade has been a fairly salt-centric one. In the early 2000s, chefs returned to the tradition of salting meat several hours to several days in advance of cooking it. And Thomas Keller, famed French Laundry chef, called salt “the new olive oil.”
“It’s what makes food taste good,” said Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain. And they’re right, of course; salt is an easy win, whether you’re cooking at home or in a professional setting. But has our love for the stuff gone too far?
In this meditation on American chefs’ love of salt for TIME Magazine, written around the time a New York state legislator proposed banning it from restaurant kitchens, Josh Ozersky wrote:
The food marketplace is under constant pressure to make everything tastier, more explosive, more exciting, and salt is everyone’s go-to flavor enhancer because it opens up the taste buds. It’s basically cocaine for the palate — a white powder that makes everything your mouth encounters seem vivid and fun … The saltier foods are, the more we like them. And the more we like them, the more salt we get.
How do we slow down the treadmill? Well, for some, it’s not a choice. Take Jessica Goldman Foung – a.k.a. Sodium Girl. She’s been on a strict low-sodium, salt-free diet since she was diagnosed with lupus in 2004 and faced kidney failure.
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” she recalls. “I could be on dialysis for the rest of my life, or I could try to radically change my diet. I already knew food was very powerful healer, so I figured I would try that first.”
Using the few low-sodium cookbooks she could find, Goldman Foung taught herself to cook. The books were helpful, but they were also written for an older population.
“They looked like text books, there was no color photography,” she says. “These were recipes that would prevent congestive heart failure, but they weren’t what you’d pull out before having dinner guests over.”
When she started blogging and writing her own recipes (and occasionally finding ways to visit restaurants, with the help of some very generous chefs), Goldman Foung decided to take a different approach. “I didn’t want to apologize for the fact that it was salt-free. I wanted to make something so good, the fact that was salt-free would be an after-thought.”
So Goldman Foung went about experimenting with ways to build flavor without sodium, all while keeping a detailed record on her blog. And this month, as collection of recipes and tips called Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook will appear on shelves, where she hopes it can impact the larger conversation around sodium.
Rather than just getting rid of the salt, Goldman Foung has also developed a finely-tuned sense of how sodium work in all foods.
Goldman Foung has experimented with a range of spices, but before she does that, she looks to whole foods for a variety of flavors. “You don’t even have to go to the spice rack. You can get peppery taste from raw turnips and radishes, you can get bitter taste from chicories, and natural umami from tomatoes and mushrooms. And you can get actual saltiness from a lot of foods themselves.
“Understanding where the sodium comes from helps you reduce it, but it also helps you utilize it to really increase flavor in your cooking,” she says. Beets and celery, for instance, are naturally higher in sodium than other vegetables, so Goldman Foung began using them to impart a “salty flavor” in things like Bloody Marys, pasta sauces, and soup bases. But they’re not the only foods have some that contain sodium. Take cantaloupes; it has 40 mg of sodium per serving, “which is probably why it pairs so well with Proscciuto,” Goldman Foung adds.
She also recommends playing around with other unlikely ingredients – oils, beer, etc. — and modes of cooking (think roasting or smoking) if you’re looking to eat less salt. Her latest fascination has been tamarind paste, which she uses to make a low-sodium teriyaki sauce (see below).
As Goldman Foung sees it, most Americans have developed a dependence on salt, and other high-sodium ingredients, without realizing it. But a gradual decrease in their use can open up a sensory realm many of us are missing out on.
“Once you really do adjust to less salt and actually start tasting your food, it’s a pretty stunning experience,” says Goldman Foung. “After tasting, say, grilled meat or a roasted pepper for the first time after losing the salt, you need very little else.”
The recipe below has been excerpted from Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook.
Tamarind “Teriyaki” Chicken Skewers
Long before I discovered my love of sashimi, I fell in love with the viscous, sweet taste of teriyaki. With anywhere from 300 to 700mg of sodium per tablespoon, however, teriyaki chicken from the local takeout is now out of the question. So, to meet my cravings, I let go of the original dish and focused on finding a substitute with a similar color, thick coating, and unique flavor. The low-sodium answer lay in tamarind paste — a sweet and tart concentrate made from tamarind seed pods. It is popular in Indian, Middle Eastern, and East Asian cuisines, and can even be found in Worcestershire sauce. Its acidic properties help tenderize meat, and in Ayurvedic medicine it is said to have heart-protecting properties. Or in Western medicine speak, it may help lower bad cholesterol.
While it is no teriyaki, this tamarind sauce sure makes a convincing look-alike. The savory sweetness of the tamarind will delight your palate. If you have any leftover herbs in your kitchen, like mint, cilantro, or even some green onion, dice and sprinkle them over the chicken at the end for some extra color and cool flavor. And to make a traditional bento presentation, serve with a slice of orange and crisp lettuce salad.
1 tablespoon tamarind paste (or substitute with pomegranate molasses)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 teaspoons molasses
1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
3 garlic cloves, diced
3⁄4 cup water plus 2 tablespoons
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 teaspoons sesame oil
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1⁄2-inch-wide strips
White toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
2 green onions, thinly sliced (everything but the bulb), for garnish
+ In a small pot or saucepan, mix together the first 7 ingredients (tamarind paste to 3⁄4 cup water). Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to low and cook for 10 minutes.
+ In a separate bowl, mix the cornstarch with the 2 tablespoons of water until it is dissolved and smooth. Add the cornstarch mixture to the pot and stir until it is well combined and the sauce begins to thicken like a glaze. Continue to cook and reduce by one third, 2 to 3 minutes. Then turn the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pot with a lid to keep the sauce warm.
+ In a large skillet, heat the sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add your chicken pieces and about a quarter of the sauce and cook for 5 minutes without stirring. Then toss the chicken pieces, doing your best to flip them over, adding another quarter of the sauce. Cook until the inside of the meat is white, 6 to 8 minutes more.
+ Remove the chicken from the heat and allow it to rest until the pieces are cool enough to handle. Weave the chicken onto the bamboo skewers, about 4 per skewer, and lay them flat on a serving dish or a large plate. Drizzle the remaining sauce over the skewers and sprinkle with white toasted sesame seeds and the sliced green onions. Serve and eat immediately.
+ Sodium count: Tamarind paste: 20mg per ounce depending on brand; Molasses: 10mg per 1 tablespoon; Chicken thigh (with skin): 87mg per 1⁄4 pound.
December 30, 2011
This is our last Food & Think post of the year. Sadly, it also happens to be my last ever—or at least for the foreseeable future. With my due date approaching in a few months, I’ve decided one full-time job (I am a senior editor at Adirondack Life magazine) plus new motherhood is about all I can handle for a while. I have learned so many interesting things about food in the last two and a half years of writing for the blog—and I still plan to, but now as a reader instead of writer.
I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite posts of the year—those that I either particularly enjoyed reading or writing. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll go back and give them a look.
1. Beer Batter Is Better; Science Says So. Without T. A. Frail’s important batter research in January, we all might have eaten inferior onion rings in 2011. Thank you, Tom.
2. Unwrapping the History of the Doggie Bag. Also back in January, Jesse detailed how the practice of wrapping up “bones for Bowser” evolved into bringing home leftovers never intended to touch canine lips.
3. Renaissance Table Etiquette and the Origins of Manners. Jesse’s look at pre-Emily Post do’s and don’ts includes one of my favorite lines of the year: On farting at the dinner table, Erasmus writes, “If it is possible to withdraw, it should be done alone. But if not, in accordance with the ancient proverb, let a cough hide the sound.”
4. Inviting Writing: When in Rome. Inviting Writing has always been one of my favorite parts of the blog—to both write and read. Of the ones I wrote, the one reminiscing about a perfect meal in Rome was particularly enjoyable.
5. Law and Order: Culinary Crimes Unit. That Jesse had the material to write not one but six posts on food-related crime is both astonishing and entertaining. Read them all: the original; Jell-O Gelatin Unit; Ice Cream Truck Unit; More Culinary Crimes; Even More Food Crimes; and New Culinary Crimes.
6. Science in the Public Interest: The Beer Koozie Test. I’ll admit, this one was fun to both research and write. But, like T. A. Frail’s onion ring research, I believe it performed an important reader service.
7. Inviting Writing: What to Eat When You’re Adopting. One of my favorite guest essays this year was by Amy Rogers Nazarov, who wrote a touching piece on learning about Korean food while waiting to meet her adopted son.
8. The Other Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Jesse tells us about the cookbook written by Alice B. Toklas, famous as the longtime lover of Gertrude Stein and the title subject of one of the celebrated author’s best-known works.
9. The Gingerbread Man and Other Runaway Foods. Who knew there was a whole literary genre of runaway pancakes? Well, anyone who read Jesse’s enlightening post from earlier this month.
With that, I bid you adieu. Have a wonderful 2012, everyone.
Ed. note — Thank you, Lisa, for the 272 posts that carry your byline. You’ll be dearly missed and here’s to a very happy and joyful 2012!
November 8, 2011
Fast-food aficionados are all abuzz over the McRib, the sandwich with a sizable cult following enjoying a return engagement at McDonald’s locations through November 14. Seriously, how many foodstuffs do you know of that have their own locator map so that die-hard fans can get their fix? The pork patty itself is something of a technological marvel, with emulsified bits of pork meat molded into the shape of ribs.
The more I pondered the McRib, the more it seemed like a descendant of scrapple. For those not in the know, this traditional breakfast food combines grain with the scraps and trimmings of meat, including organ meat, left over from butchering a hog. The mixture is boiled and allowed to set before being molded into a loaf, sliced up and finally pan-fried until golden brown. Like the McRib, scrapple is a distinctively American pork product and remains a regional favorite.
The dish has its roots in the black blood puddings found in Dutch and German cuisine. Immigrants brought the dish, also known as pawnhoss, to the New World in the 17th century, where it became most closely associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. In this country, blood was omitted from the meat mix and European grains were replaced with American ones, such as buckwheat and cornmeal. Seasonings can vary depending on locality, with Philadelphia scrapple going heavy on the sage, while more Germanic versions favor marjoram and coriander. The dish was a commonsense means of extending leftover meat and avoiding waste, making as much use of an animal as possible. While pragmatic, the flip side is that organ meats can be very high in fat and cholesterol, so regularly incorporating scrapple into your diet might not be the best idea. Nevertheless, it remains popular and has spawned local celebrations, such as Philadelphia’s Scrapplefest and Bridgeville, Delaware’s Apple-Scrapple Festival, which sports events like a scrapple shot-put contest. (And XBox users out there might also recall the scrapple commercial that was worked into the game Whacked!, with a line of dancing pigs being sent down a conveyor belt before being sloshed into tin cans. And I have to admit, the jingle is pretty catchy.)
My first encounter with scrapple was at the L&S Diner in Harrisonburg, Virginia, courtesy of an uncle who treated me for breakfast and didn’t explain what it was I was eating until after my plate was cleared. I took pause, but didn’t dwell on the matter too long because, frankly, the nondescript brown slice of pork-flavored something-or-other tasted great—though it’s difficult for anything that’s fried to be rendered unpalatable. When Snowpocalypse hit the D.C. area last year, this meatloaf of the morning was my comfort food of choice to get me through being stuck indoors for a few days. Former Food and Think blogger Amanda Bensen, on the other hand, seems to have had an unpleasant introduction to the dish, so much so that she turned vegetarian. Though based on her description of being served pork mush, I’m not sure that it was properly prepared. But, like with any regional cuisine, there are dozens of variations that can be had with the dish. Do you enjoy scrapple? If so, tell us in the comments section how you like it served.
September 29, 2011
Kids are usually admonished for fooling around with their food, be it making duck lips out of a pair of Pringles or claws from Bugles corn chips. (Although big kids aren’t always above the sort of mealtime horseplay that would make Miss Manners say “ahem.”) But while playing with one’s food is the sort of behavior that might not be appropriate for the dinner table, it does have its place—namely, the concert hall.
Since 1998, the Vegetable Orchestra, a Vienna-based experimental musical group, has explored the sonic qualities of goods found in the produce aisle. The 11 musicians in the group are a collective of artists and writers who, one evening, began to ponder what would be the most difficult things they could use to try to make music. As luck would have it, they were making soup that night. Their first experimental outing had led to more than a decade’s worth of music making around the world. (They enjoyed their first play dates in the US in 2010, and sadly, their current schedule doesn’t have them on this side of the pond anytime soon.)
Of course, given the impermanent nature of the materials, the orchestra needs to be purchased—as much as 70 pounds of produce—before every concert. Some veggies have ready-made musicality, such as the percussive sounds that can be produced by thunking on a pumpkin. But other instruments are crafted before each show, such as the carrot recorders and cucumberphones. After a show, the veggies are divvied up, with some going into a vegetable soup shared by the musicians and audience members while some of the instruments are given away. In terms of style, the group’s compositions—yes, you can compose music for vegetables—is more or less its own genre, though it draws on experimental, electronic and pop music.
And no, they’re not vegetarians.
August 22, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you for personal stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. Our first essay comes from Katherine Krein of Sterling, Virginia, who works in a middle school in the special education department, helping students in math and science classes. She charts the skills one learns to master over time as the cafeteria poses new and more elaborate challenges.
Learning Cafeteria Culture, Grade by Grade
By Katherine Krein
School cafeterias from my youth are first remembered by their artifacts. I can visualize several things: the hard and heavy rectangular trays, the substantial metal silverware, the breakable plates filled with food, the little milk cartons, and the thin plastic straws. Lunch was paid for with change in our pockets or purses. Learning how to carry the heavy tray in order to balance the plate of food, silverware, and milk was a proud accomplishment for me as a young girl.
Social navigation was the next thing that had to be learned. You had to make friends and form a pact that you would sit together day after day. This could be hard at first if you were the new kid in town. My family moved about every two years throughout my elementary schooling, so I had to be brave and friendly. Trying to fit in would sometimes put me in a morally uncomfortable position. I have a recollection of making friends with a group of girls whose leader was a little mean. I remember one day she put potato chips in the seat of an overweight girl. When the girl sat down and flattened the chips everyone, including me, giggled. This memory still haunts me and fills me with shame.
By junior high school everything became smoother. I had grown, and carrying the full heavy tray became easy. My father’s job no longer required us to move, and we settled into our social surroundings. Knowing where to sit in the cafeteria became routine, and it no longer filled me with uncertainty. But social faux pas were still rather common. I remember sitting across the table from my friend Lisa when somehow milk came shooting out from my straw and ended up in Lisa’s face and hair. I’m not sure how this all transpired, but I am sure that I must have been doing something unladylike. Lisa did not speak to me for the rest of the day, and later in the week she got revenge by flinging peas in my hair and face. We remained friends through it all.
In high school, manners and appearances became more important as I began to view boys in a new way, and I began to notice them noticing me in a different way. Keith was a boy my age who I thought was very cute, and we were sitting across the table from one another. He was playing with his ketchup packet as we talked and flirted, and in an instant the packet burst. Ketchup squirted in my hair and on my face. Shock and surprise turned into laughter. What else could I do? We did end up dating for a while until my interest moved on.
I can barely remember specific foods from my K-12 cafeteria days. In California I loved the cafeteria burritos. Fish was frequently served on Fridays. Pizza is remembered from high school because my sister, two years older than me, could count on me to give her half of mine. Last but not least are memories of the mouth-watering, gooey, sugary and aromatic cinnamon buns. Eating them was such a sensory and sensuous experience.
I have a theory about why I don’t remember more about the food. As a student my brain was bombarded with numerous new and nervous social situations, and I was busy trying to analyze and remember new and complex ideas. Eating was a response to being in the cafeteria, and my primary consciousness was busy with socialization and academic learning. Eating did not require much of my thought.